Arizona is one of two dozen U.S. states where coronavirus cases have been on the rise for the past week. Governor Doug Ducey points to increased testing as the cause, but local health experts say hospitalizations are increasing, too. In KNAU’s weekly update on the science of COVID-19, Melissa Sevigny speaks with University of Arizona epidemiologist Dr. Purnima Madhivanan about what’s driving those numbers, who it’s affecting, and why.
Tell me what we’ve been seeing in Arizona in recent weeks with COVID-19 case numbers?
As of now, I think the biggest challenge that we’re seeing is in Maricopa County, and in Yuma and Santa Cruz counties, which are on the border. The Phoenix population is about 5 million people, so it’s very concentrated. Fifty-eight percent of all the Arizona cases are actually in Phoenix… and even more disturbing is, 58 percent of the cases are in the age group under 44 years of age… young people, who should be taking care of children, and their loved ones, and parents, so this is a huge problem.
So we’ve been seeing in the past week not only kind of record numbers of new cases but also increased hospitalizations. What factors are driving those trends?
When the stay at home were orders lifted in May 15, we had projected that this was going to happen… We did not do a staggered, slow, methodical opening. We kind of opened up and the quarantine fatigue that had set in got people to get out very quickly. And what happened was, the risk perception went down dramatically…. One of the things that surprises me is when I see how casual life is outside, where people are sitting in coffee shops, really not physically distancing, we don’t see that much use of masks. All of these things have actually increased what you’re seeing right now…. When you don’t have a coordinated effort, it’s going to be very hard, even if one small community tries to do all the right things. Because this virus does not believe in borders. It’s a very nonpartisan, impartial virus. It will come whether you like it or not.
We know that certain groups in our state are more affected by this disease than others. Can you talk about some of those more vulnerable populations?
Based on the CDC report, among all COVID-19 cases for which they have data on ethnicities, 33 percent were Hispanics, 22 percent were non-Hispanic blacks, even those these groups only accounted for 13 percent and 18 percent respectively of U.S. population…. People of color are more affected by this. Some might ask, why is that? It’s mostly people of color are disproportionately represented in the low wage so-called “essential” jobs that are expected to stay open. They also live in more densely populated communities. Another thing to think about is COVID-19 has led to this kind of financial stresses, as shutdowns have impacted employers and industries. Who are the people most affected? It’s mostly the minority populations. It’s almost like: affected from every different way. It couldn’t have been worse.
Do you think anything needs to change about Arizona’s public health response right now?
We’re not even at the peak right now. We’re still going up, and we still have a long way to go. But how we flatten that curve, or how we bring that spike down, really depends on what we do. How do we make sure the community thinks as a unit—not as an individual but as a unit…. because we all live in community, and that is what we need to start recognizing.
Purnima Madhivanan, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Not a problem.